Hot school meals help children in wake of Haiti earthquake
The children of families who were affected by the massive earthquake which devastated large parts of south-west Haiti in August are receiving free hot meals at school. This is part of a World Food Programme (WFP) initiative to support the recovery of the country’s most vulnerable communities.
It’s 11 a.m. at the Ecole Nationale des Filles de Dame Marie, a school in the small town of Jérémie on the western peninsula of southern Haiti. Two volunteer cooks are running a bit late with the preparation of today’s meal for 307 schoolchildren.
On the menu are black beans, which are taking a little longer to cook than normal. Wheat grain will be added as will vegetable oil, spring onions and spicy peppers, to two steaming pots.
The students here, both girls and boys despite the name of the school, are benefitting from the WFP’s school meals initiative, which aims to provide the most vulnerable children with at least one cooked meal per day.
Principal Franesie Sylvestre says for many, “this is the only meal they will eat today.”
Dame Marie town was affected by the earthquake, but the school remained largely unscathed apart from a few cracks in the walls of buildings and a collapsed entrance gate.
The most significant impact has been on the parents of these children, many of whom lost their farms or missed the planting season due to the disaster.
“They can no longer cultivate food,” says Principal Sylvestre, “so they cannot feed their children properly. That’s why this school feeding programme is so important. It will give the children energy to carry on studying and provide support to their parents. In the long run, that is good for our community.”
School meals were in operation well before the earthquake struck south-west Haiti on 14 August, leading to the deaths of more than 2,200 people; an additional 12,700 were injured and key infrastructure, such as bridges, roads, hospitals and schools, was destroyed or damaged.
This school is just one of more than 1,600 where WFP is providing meals to around 345,000 students. And, as in most schools, the initiative aims to do more than just provide meals.
Small handwashing stations fashioned from buckets stand on platforms outside each classroom. They’ve been installed by UNICEF to ensure that the children learn good hygiene habits such as washing hands before meals.
UNICEF has provided study books on French, maths and other subjects, as well as desks where students can comfortably work.
“We have to take a holistic approach”, says WFP Field Programme Assistant Maguelita Varin, “because if children don’t wash their hands and then eat, they can get sick. And if they don’t have any books, they’re not able to study even if they have eaten well.”
WFP’s school meals programme is planning to expand and use more locally grown produce for almost 40,000 children in 190 schools in the three departments that were affected by the earthquake.
The UN’s International Labour Organization is looking to support the wider cultivation among farmers in the area of breadfruit, a nutritious and versatile tropical fruit. It’s hoped breadfruit will become a staple ingredient in school meals, a development which would, in turn, support the local economy.
“This approach helps to sustain the local economy and will encourage farmers to grow more crops,” says Varin. “Ultimately, it will help communities to recover better and build their resilience to future shocks.”
At the Ecole Nationale des Filles de Dame Marie, the food is ready, and students are lining up patiently to wash their hands before joining the queue for their hot meal. For many this is their first food of the day and some look very hungry.
Back at their desks, they tuck enthusiastically into generous helping of beans and wheat. They are too focused on eating to spend time chatting, and teachers know they will be well fed and focused on the lessons that follow.
Daniel Dickinson is a Senior Multimedia Editor at the Department of Global Communications of UN HQ in New York. WFP’s school feeding programme in Haiti is funded by Canada, Education Cannot Wait, France, Switzerland and the United States Department of Agriculture. The programme in Ecole Nationale des Filles de Dame Marie is funded by USDA. Across Haiti, almost 100,000 schoolchildren are reached thanks to USDA funds.